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Tracing The Untouchability Of Appa Rao And The Death Of Rohith Vemula

29/03/2016 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Students listen to a speaker as they protest the death of an Indian student, portrait in front, who, along with 4 others, was barred from using some facilities at the Hyderabad university in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2016.The protesters accused Hyderabad University's vice chancellor along with a federal minister of unfairly demanding punishment for the five lower-caste students after they clashed last year with a group of students supporting the governing Hindu nationalist party. (AP Photo /Mahesh Kumar A.)

What is the University of Hyderabad administration up to? That question should bother anybody who reads the newspapers nowadays. With university vice-chancellor Prof. Appa Rao--who was accused of creating the circumstances that led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula--resuming charge on 22 March after staying away from the office due to student opposition, there were bound to be repercussions.

Since his death, Rohith Vemula has become an icon of student power, subaltern imagination and social equality, with students holding events across the country. Appa Rao's move is akin to him saying, "Let us see what these students can do." The subsequent crackdown on protesting students, the cutting off of supplies and communications and the show of macho power by (mis)using the apparatus of the state shows the logic of war times: just mindlessly advance and crush down anything by the enemy! Two faculty members of the university, K. Y. Ratnam and Tathagatha Sengupta have also been arrested and send to jail in this unusual episode.

The chief warden one day asked one of the wardens, who was a Dalit, to take care of only sanitation [because that's] "the kind of work Dalits do".

Where does an administration, a vice-chancellor, get the courage to act with such impunity? What is the source of this "nothing will happen to me" surety, the demonstration of which is brazen and brutal? Does political immunity allow the head of an academic institution to go to such an extent? I have a story that might help us understand this source of absolute power. Memory as explanation, if you like.

This was 2002. I was a Master's student in the English department of the University of Hyderabad. Hailing from Kerala--the land of the unwritten curfew for women once darkness descends--that huge campus where young men and women worked in labs, read in libraries and roamed around in bicycles and on foot freely throughout the night was like something out of a fairytale.

This ethos was soon to be shaken.

The New Researchers' Hostel had two wardens due to the huge number of students resided in there. The chief warden one day asked one of the wardens, who was a Dalit, to take care of only sanitation, so that the other warden could take care of "academic and other" aspects of hostel administration. The bifurcation apparently was justified in the name of "the kind of work Dalits do". Deeply offended and agitated, the Dalit student bodies confronted the chief warden. This is how the Times of India wrote about the case: "The then chief warden [.....] had alleged that around 100 students attacked him in his office on Jan. 10, 2002. He identified 10 students. He also alleged they destroyed varsity property."

The students identified by the chief warden, all Dalit, were rusticated from the university for attempting to murder him.

There were two alleged crimes: first was the caste atrocity committed against a Dalit teacher through verbal humiliation and the second was the physical assault on the accused in the first case. Both had to be probed into by the mechanisms of the university and culprits should have been brought to justice. The result was: The students identified by the chief warden, all Dalit, were rusticated from the university for attempting to murder him. Yet, there was no question of extending the probe to the root cause of the developments: the casteist remark by the chief warden.

This event changed the campus atmosphere: days after this encounter, fear permeated the university. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code was imposed. Paramilitary men were walking outside our hostel rooms with AK-47s to counter "Dalit terrorists". The campus was "no longer safe for women" announced the administration despite there being no basis for such an assumption. We even heard that female students who were returning from labs late in the night and early in the morning were asked to be escorted by security men. I saw this for myself at least twice. Once this starts who would go out in the night? Women became less visible on campus after dark. Needless to say, the ambience of the campus, the rhythm of campus life got disrupted. The space had been chemically altered.

There was no question of extending the probe to the root cause of the developments: the casteist remark by the chief warden.

The university community lost an ethos. Only some of the 10 rusticated students went back to their research after two years and all these poor and underprivileged students languished for years (the university dropped charges against them in the court case after five years). Where did the chief warden end up? He was appointed as the vice-chancellor of the university a decade later, in 2015, when the BJP came to power in the Centre. Yes, his name is Appa Rao. The Dalit teacher he insulted--one of the wardens of New Researcher's hostel--is also in the news these days: K. Y. Ratnam, one of the two teachers arrested by the police along with 27 students. From the verbal violence he faced from a senior colleague (and which went unnoticed by legal procedures) to now being assaulted by the police, this Dalit teacher points to that huge chasm in our ways with fellow human beings.

In all this, it is unlikely that Appa Rao knows what he should be guilty of for he wasn't made to feel he owed an explanation for his verbal crime or partisan deeds. He knows he can rule in spite of protests because that is one thing his past in the university has taught him.

Where did the chief warden end up? He was appointed as the vice-chancellor of the university in 2015...

I remember a question some of us who protested against the 'attempt to murder' case all those years ago were asked: "After these Dalit terrorists beat up a teacher, you are talking about their rights? They should all be hanged." To assign blame, many people only needed the words of the person who was at the centre of the case. There was no discrediting of him because there was no talk about his crime. Justice is a matter of living through nothing but the truth, the entire truth. Partial justice is injustice. A seed was planted then and its dangers became clear in the future, as Rohith has taught us in unforgettable ways.

[Appa Rao] knows he can rule in spite of protests because that is one thing his past in the university has taught him.

This identification of the problem and fixing of responsibility where it belongs in all its specificity is something even the surprisingly successful student protesters in JNU need to be mindful of. They shouldn't rest until everyone is categorically held accountable--the media groups that criminally sensationalized issues based on doctored videos, a police force that acted against their solemn responsibilities to the Constitution and an HRD minister who presented a clear falsehood on the floor of Parliament when she accused Rohith's friends of being murderers by "not allowing a doctor near the child just to get political mileage". There is no reason to leave anything to the political parties in the opposition if a minister can continue in her position despite her lies being proven or when media channels can continue with their rhetoric despite being exposed for their wrongdoing. The current victory is of political energy but it needs the aid of institutions of democracy and that must be gained through sustained long-term work.

Or else, such events will only bolster the political class's confidence in doing pretty much what they like through the heads they insensitively install and reinstate at will.

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